If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as writing, we North Dakotans would have little to fear from our Legislature, for it is an inconsistent outfit.
Emerson did not use the word "consistency" unconditionally. He used a modifier. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he wrote in "Self-Reliance," published in 1841.
Emerson is usually understood to have meant that we each ought to make up our own minds, to be self-reliant, in other words.
The adjective "foolish" exonerates legislators of harboring hobgoblins. They're not guilty of foolish consistency but rather of determined and self-interested inconsistency.
Examples are abundant.
The most obvious is the effort to make amending the state constitution a great deal more difficult, mostly by requiring initiated amendments to be "laid over" for legislators to inspect and forward to voters. This means that an initiated amendment couldn't be on the ballot for at least two years, and maybe more, after sufficient signatures were gathered.
Of course, legislators hope that in the meantime, enthusiasm for the idea would dissipate and they wouldn't have to worry about the messy business of incorporating the will of the voters in their deliberations. Their interference would clean up the language and make the amendments better.
This concern isn't a new one; the amendment that's pending in the assembly would essentially restore the system used until 1914, when the Progressive movement introduced "direct democracy." Voters here embraced the idea more fervently than those in most other states, and in the last century, North Dakotans have used petitions to both to check legislative action and to take action on issues that legislators themselves didn't want to deal with.
The latter is the case this session. Lawmakers are annoyed by recent initiated measures, two of them constitutional amendments. The first was "Marsy's Law" expanding the rights of crime victims, passed in 2016, and an ethics amendment requiring public officials to police their coziness with special interest groups, passed in 2018.
Both were attacked as intrusions. The petitions were sponsored and signed by North Dakota, and approved by North Dakota voters, but it's true that they got help, both legal and financial. The amendment mandating legislative review would have stalled both of these initiatives.
Lawmakers might legitimately fear the thing they are fighting, since a good many of them depend on out-of-state think tanks for draft legislation. Quite a few of them accept help from out-of-state groups whose views they share, and they seldom criticize the sort of public interest advertising that happens to reflect their own points of view.
Thus, of course, they overlook the wisdom of the voters. North Dakotans have rejected constitutional amendments funded by out-of-state interests, notably the "inalienable right to life amendment" and an amendment creating a land and water conservation trust fund, both advanced by North Dakotans and rejected by their fellow citizens in 2014.
The point here is that voters are capable of making their own judgments. You don't have to believe the voters are always right in order to appreciate the seriousness with which they consider questions.
Voters themselves are often inconsistent, and legislators should be grateful. In 2014, voters defeated a bill, later referred, that would have created loopholes in the state's anti-corporation farming law. The changes were referred; 75 percent of voters statewide opposed the changes and the majority against them was not less than 70 percent in any of the state's 53 counties, urban and rural alike.
Voters didn't punish the lawmakers who passed the bill. In the next election cycles - 2016 and 2018 - every legislator who supported the loopholes and stood for re-election won - save only one, a Republican who lost a Senate seat in Fargo.
In 1866 Gideon John Tucker, a judge of New York's Surrogate Court, saved himself from obscurity by ruling - in a case involving a will - that "No one's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session." This isn't true, of course; we are all a good deal better off for having a legislature - and we would be better off yet if we paid more attention.
The coming fortnight is time to watch most carefully. The North Dakota session is in its closing days. Pending issues are in conference committees where differences between bills passed by the House and the Senate are worked out. As Ray Holmberg, senior member of the state Senate, quipped last week, "We're not legislating in the State of North Dakota. We're in the "The State of Flux.'"
This creates anxious moments for lobbyists, entertainment for journalists and a certain amount of risk for the public, especially if lawmakers get away with limiting direct democracy.
Emerson might be peeved.
He might not have imagined initiative and referendum, but Emerson understood direct democracy, and attended his town's annual meetings, where everyone could be heard.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.